8 Differences Between Danish and American Culture

Allow me to preface this post by acknowledging that all of these differences are based on my limited time in Denmark (predominately spent in Copenhagen) and involve many generalizations (which may or may not all be accurate).

Additionally, I am absolutely engrossed by Danish culture, and this is just the beginning of many posts I will have discussing it.  (My apologies if you have zero interest in Denmark).

  1. Danes are direct.

It wasn’t until I had spent over a year in Denmark that I truly came to realize the large emphasis Americans place upon politeness norms and the lack of emphasis Danes place upon this same value.  We (Americans) are taught from the time we are little to be kind, empathize with others, and exercise compassion; and as a result, many of us tend to have a difficult time being truthful, when, quite frankly, the truth hurts. Here is an illustrated example of this difference, regarding an experience I had that was quite similar in context, with two different friends, on two different continents.

Me: Do you think this dress looks okay?

American Friend:  *hesitates* Oh!  I didn’t realize you were thinking about that one.  Why don’t you try that black one you have on instead? That would look AMAZING!

Danish Friend: No.  It’s super unflattering.

The problem with this is that Americans, who are often much more politically-correct than Danes, are more likely to be offended by this direct approach. (I struggled with this a lot at first, because I simply wasn’t used to friends always keepin’ it real). Danes, who are well-intentioned, have difficulty understanding this.  From their perspective, if you ask how your dress looks, and quite honestly, it looks bad, they would be in the wrong to tell you otherwise. The upside of this is that you can usually take what a Dane says at face value. If they tell you that the meal you just cooked was absolutely divine, it’s quite likely that you cooked a pretty kick-ass meal.  But if your American friend says it was delicious…can you really trust that that is true, or are they just being polite?

  1. When partying or going out with friends, Danes take their sweet, sweet time.

Perhaps due to the fact that our legal drinking age commences at 21, and Danes, on average, start drinking in their early teens, Americans enter the college atmosphere with the “more is more” mentality.  Americans do not waste time when they go out, and especially in the college climate, alcohol is consumed rapidly. You can usually expect a night of drinking to last, on average, five hours maximum (pre-game included). This is largely reinforced by the fact that most bars’ last calls end at around 2 A.M., which is much earlier than many bars in Copenhagen. Image may contain: indoor

When I studied abroad in Denmark, I lived in a kollegium (which is a hybrid between a college dorm and an apartment complex).  I made an amazing group of friends (shoutout to mine venner at SK) and was fortunate enough to experience Danish social life while I was there.  There were numerous times where a party/event would start at 5 pm and last well into the morning (we’re talking 5 am or 6 am here). The parties would involve eating a meal together, playing lots of games (Danes love a good dice game, which seems to be absent from American drinking culture), and inevitably end with someone dancing on a table.  Had you told pre-Denmark Taryn that I would be attending 12+ hour long parties, I would never have been able to conceive how that was possible.  But somehow, time seems to fly during that time period. And despite the fact that the parties are so long, there is something more “chill” and relaxed about them.  There isn’t this rush to get wasted and go out. The emphasis seems to be more about kicking it with friends and relaxing, and that was something I really enjoyed. (Again, I am acknowledging that I am completely generalizing based upon my experience in my kollegium, which is not necessarily reflective of other kollegiums in Denmark).  However, with bars’ last calls ending much later, you can expect Danish nightlife to carry on later into the night (or earlier into the morning) than nightlife in the States.

  1. Child-rearing is more relaxed.

When it comes to raising children, Danes tend to be a lot more lax than American parents.  From the time children are 3 or 4 years old, they enter into a Danish børnehaven. Here, their teachers are called pedagogues.  While studying in Denmark, I interned at one of these institutions and experienced complete culture shock regarding the way the børnehaven operated. For one, the children went outside for a minimum of two hours a day, regardless of the weather.  If it was below freezing, raining, hailing, snowing, etc…that was  irrelevant. Children would go out to play, and pedagogues would supervise them. Now, having worked as an elementary school teacher for Montgomery County Public Schools, the contrast is undeniable–students in my second-grade class are not permitted to go outside if the wind chill is less than freezing.  Perhaps Danes are more willing to send their children out in the cold because nearly every Danish child comes equipped with a flyverdragt (peep the picture below).  I suppose if you bundle your child up like a snowman, they can take on anything.Image result for flyverdragt

However, what was even more striking was the way in which children were allowed to play. Students of all ages climbed to the top of tall contraptions, swung upside down, and galavanted around the playground (which had a much more earthy, junkyard-ish type of feel). When asked about the rules on the playground, the pedagogue said to me, “If they can climb up it, they can play on it.”  Three-year old children were playing in a way that would never have been permissible in the United States, but the pedagogues reassured me that the only way children could truly learn was through experience. They also emphasized the importance of learning through play. They even had a rule where while they played indoors, three children were allowed to go outside together (unsupervised) and play, to form a sense of collaborative identity.  (I found this completely overwhelming and continuously looked out the window, just in case, which the pedagogues thought was comical at the time). Whereas in American preschools, children already begin academic learning and discourse, this was not so at the børnehaven.

Another thing I noticed was that on really nice days, when the weather was beautiful (there are about one and a half months in the year where this might be possible in Denmark), mothers would stroll into coffee shops to grab a quick cup of joe…and leave their child and the stroller outside. Granted, Copenhagen is certainly more safe than most of the U.S., but I still found this concept shocking.  To leave your child outside, where cars, buses, and bikes whiz by just a few feet away, was something I couldn’t grasp.

  1.  Life, in general, is more relaxed.

In general, life in Denmark is seemingly more relaxed than life in the United States. From the moment we enter elementary school in the U.S., the message that we will one day go to college and pursue our career dreams becomes ingrained within us. Our education system breeds competitiveness, and this competitive nature was something I did not sense half as much whilst biding my time in Denmark.  (The lack of competition may also be due to Denmark’s status as a welfare state..stay tuned for a post on what that really means)!

In fact, Danish culture acknowledges and even encourages the fact that not all Danes are cut out for college, and there are many trades that do not require a college degree.  Because of this, it seems that young adults who choose to forego a college education hold a more valued place in society than we provided for young adults with similar priorities in the U.S.  Additionally, it is quite common for students to take gap years to travel or work in between middle and high school, and high school and college.  Due to this trend, American students tend to graduate with their degrees much earlier than Danish students.

Another possibility regarding why this relaxed atmosphere exists may be, in part, due to Denmark’s drinking culture. Whereas police officers infiltrate American college parties to bust under-age drinkers, Danish universities actually have bars within them and frequently host “Friday Bars” and other events for their students.  This utterly blew my mind when I first heard about it.

  1. Transportation is different–biking is an integral part of Danish culture.

Image may contain: indoor and outdoorSpeaking of cars, buses, and bikes, expect a totally different kind of transportation scene in Copenhagen.  (I will speak solely about Copenhagen for this one, as I am less familiar with the rest of Denmark). I had many friends living there who did not have driver’s licenses because they simply didn’t need them. Copenhagen has a phenomenal metro system that is efficient, timely, and generally-speaking, easy to understand (even for those of us like myself, who are self-admittedly navigationally-challenged). Not only that, if you are living in Copenhagen, you can get anywhere you need to by bike (and many Danes do). Just like how children went outside regardless of the weather at the børnehaven, Danes bike regardless of the temperature, precipitation, or occasion (I saw many girls in fancy dresses and heels, biking in the snow…kudos to you, ladies). Danes are masterful multi-taskers, biking with grocery bags on each handlebar of the bike. The bike lanes are fabulous and clearly-defined. If you visit or stay in Copenhagen for a week or more…do not be intimidated! Rent a bike! It is such an amazing way to experience the city.

  1. In regards to the dating scene, Danish dudes are passive. (Remember my Danish friends..generalizations!)

If you begin to like a Danish man romantically…brace yourself, ladies, because chances are, your relationship with him will be unlike one you have ever had. Danish men tend to be significantly more passive than American men (which is interesting and doesn’t really align with the aforementioned Danish directness I discussed). Thus, you may not feel as heavily pursued like you are by men in the States. You may find yourself feeling compelled to chase after a man or confused by his intentions (not that I’m speaking from personal experience here). The hook-up and dating culture definitely contrasts with the culture in the States, but I’ll let you delve into that on your own. 😉

  1. Small talk?  Danes skip it.

Americans rely heavily on pleasantries.  I run regularly, and just this morning I was thinking about how, even when I am dripping in my own sweat and panting so hard I can’t breathe (#fitnessgoals), I never think twice about waving or smiling at each person I pass along the way.  This is just like how when I am at the grocery store and I am checking out my groceries, I never think twice about asking the grocery store clerk, “How are you?” To Danes, these three simple words that are so embedded into Americans’ everyday speech, are bizarre. Why would you bother asking someone how they are unless you really want to know how they are doing?  And while, often I ask people how they are and genuinely care, this caused me to reflect upon the number of times I pass coworkers quickly while we are both walking down the hall, and we swiftly exchange “how are you”s while our minds are seemingly on the day to come. We both know that we won’t have time to actually answer the question, but we do it out of courtesy. Danes don’t bother with this. Just like how they don’t say something if they don’t mean it, they won’t ask something if they don’t care to know the answer.

Have you visited Copenhagen?  What are other subtle cultural differences have you observed?

3 comments on “8 Differences Between Danish and American Culture

  1. Just don’t do it! Or, if you’re like me, don’t make the mistake of attempting to tell the grocery store clerk where you are from, in Danish, when they already clearly understand English, all the while murdering the pronunciation and grammar of your statement. 🙂

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